Before I continue, I need to state a disclaimer: I am anti-union in any reasonable workplace. I am also anti-management in any reasonable workplace. Both traditional labour unions and traditional command-and-control, legitimated management (with its associated privilege) are obsolescent artefacts of a prior era, in my opinion.
Now, with that out of the way let me state a truism:
Management create the unions they deserve;Oppressive, dysfunctional workplaces that are held together by the letter of the collective agreement are always predicated on the ideation of a privileged management keeping unionized workers at bay, rather than a more contemporary ideal of collaborative engagement amongst all members of a workplace, creating a multi-valence incentive for workers to have more skin in the game than merely their pay cheque. One of the most salient, and little noticed, observations that came out of the recent bailout of the auto companies was the realization by union leaders that they now had to take on some of the reality responsibilities formerly delegated upwards to management, and they didn't like it. Why not? Creating such a holistic engagement with the organization compromised union leaders’ ability to make demands solely for the benefit of one privileged class – the unionized workers – over other classes, namely, all of the organization’s other constituencies. This realization illustrates a key point: to create engaged and committed workers, and interested (notably not self-interested) management, all of the organization’s constituent parties must equally and equitably participate in creating a truly collaborative environment, based on commonly constructed and emergent values, and a shared sense of the organization’s tactility.
Unions create the management they deserve.
What’s happening now in Wisconsin is a travesty. A privileged class takes out their supposed fiscal frustration on an underclass, falsely blaming the underclass for structural failings that the privileged themselves created. In response, the underclass is forced to protest, looking like a mob while the elites can claim the so-called high road of supposed fiscal responsibility. What is happening reinforces the apparent necessity for militant, union-vs-management confrontations, widens the gap between privileged and marginalized, polarizes the population, and necessarily increases the level of dysfunction and malicious compliance among organizations. Governor Scott Walker is wrong! wrong! wrong! and not because unions are de facto good, bad, or indifferent. He is wrong because, in the name of fiscal prudence, he is destroying the fabric of organizational effectiveness for the people of Wisconsin through an artificially forced polarization of issues, and his unwillingness to be reasonable himself in favour of cynical, partisan political ends that serve only the American oligarchy.
Although it may be easy to gratuitously criticize unions for their contributions to dysfunctional workplaces, I formed my opinions concerning the obsolescence of unions in reasonable, contemporary workplaces based on my research and writing on Valence Theory. I will admit that my visceral response to union dysfunction was informed during my graduate work, when I was forced to participate in a single-voice union whose radical politics were partially funded by my earned income. This was in a “workplace” that, in fact, was an academic environment in which the “employer” comprised our professors and academic supervisors, our “wage” was our university-provided graduate stipend, and our “benefits” were those afforded to all graduate students, irrespective of whether they had a union “job” or not. What the union sought to do was divide the students, seeking privilege for one class of students – those whom the union represented – while giving a big F! YOU to another. (Many graduate students at OISE were excluded from certain extended health benefits for years because the union provided benefits to its members who consistently blocked the referendum that would extend benefits to all students.)
In other words, a case of a privileged elite keeping everyone else down for their own benefit. Sound familiar? Unions and management are essentially mirror images of each other in almost every workplace. Reflect on this observation when considering closer to home (in my case, Toronto) issues such as eliminating city worker unions through service outsourcing, or how Bob Kinnear and his Amalgamated Transit Union 113 with its texting, sleeping, and sometimes downright hostile operators (not all of them – there are many fine and conscientious TTC operators) are a Frankenstein-like creation of TTC management, commissioners, and Toronto City Hall.
Unions are essential when the workplace would otherwise deal unfairly and inappropriately with the people who constitute them. Management who might want to eliminate unions can effectively and successfully accomplish this laudable goal by ceding their own power and authentically engaging all workers in participatory management and leadership practices.